Two years ago I didn’t know who Gretchen Peters was, but in June 2013 a buddy of mine invited me to see her play in a barn, actually called the High Barn, in Essex – you can read about what I thought of that gig here, but needless to say I’ve been a big fan ever since. Gretchen’s latest album, Blackbirds, came out a month ago, but I didn’t listen to it until the day of the gig – a treat for being such a good boy during my blood test earlier on the day 😉
It was my first time at King’s Place and it’s a really nice venue, decked out with lots of wood and being intimate but not too small. I’d read on the website earlier that the venue did not allow photography, but I didn’t think they’d mind me taking a snap of the stage before the gig started.
Gretchen’s band consisted of Barry Walsh on piano and accordion, with Christine Bougie on electric guitar, drums and lap steel guitar. I expected these two, but wasn’t expecting the 4th member, who was Northern Ireland’s Conor McCreanor on bass and double bass, and a fine addition he was too. They went straight into Blackbirds, the title track of the new album, and a song co-written by Ben Glover. I was familiar with Blackbirds, and not just because I’d heard it earlier in the day, you see, it’s also a track on Ben Glover’s own album, Atlantic, a song on which Gretchen sings too. It sounded great, with every bit of emotion and pain that we get from the song on Ben’s album, and set the tone for the night.
Blackbirds was followed by another two songs from the new album, which saw Christine play a different instrument with each one. To say they are a talented bunch would be an understatement, with Barry being somewhat of a virtuoso on the piano and his accordion playing adds a lot to the atmosphere of songs, none more so than on The Matador from Gretchen’s Hello Cruel World album. As well as the aforementioned emotion that you feel in Gretchen’s voice, it is beautifully controlled, from subtle whispers to belting high notes. With songs sewn together with witty and moving stories from her life, it’s an evening of complete musical entertainment.
With no support the gig was split in two, and after the intermission Gretchen started the second half as powerfully, some would argue even more, as the first. Sat alone on stage at the piano, she sung the song that in her words changed her life, and we were treated to a stunning rendition of Independence Day. It was a tingles down your spine performance of a song that Gretchen wrote, but was made famous by Martina McBride 20 years ago and won CMA Song Of The Year that year in 1995. I personally prefer Gretchen singing it, and last night only went to reinforce that.
At one point Gretchen actually left the stage, and let Barry, Christine and Conor take the spotlihght, as they combined to play a magical song of Barry’s called Silencio. It’s an instrumental number that you can hear over on his website and captivated me last night, so much so that I intend to buy the album. With Gretchen back on stage they played a few more songs from her new album, including The House On Auburn Street, a memory of when she was young and her Mum took her and her sister down the road to watch a neighbours house burn down, as was the done thing. Now of course people would be taking photos and positing them on Twitter.
We got a three song encore which ended with just Gretchen and Barry singing The House On Auburn Street, a song by John Prine which they sung with him when they did some shows together. Watching them sing together it’s obvious they have a very close relationship, both musically and personally, and it was a perfect way to end the night, with it’s equal moments of humour and tenderness. There’s a definite darkness to a lot of what Gretchen sang, but sung like she does, you feel a part of the story of each of those songs and privileged to be in that position.
Back in July last year, Mary Gauthier said that you can’t describe Americana, but you know it when you hear it. That’s how I feel about Gretchen, with incredible song writing, a world class voice and a band that complete it all perfectly. There’s so much fluff being put out these days, it’s so nice to be reminded that real music is still being produced and performed, and in this case at the highest level. Gretchen Peters should be listened to and watched live by anyone who considers them self a fan of music – if you are yet to do so, go now, you owe it to yourself.
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